This time it looks like the garment workers are not going to be easily cowed into submission. Even though I’ve been writing about the challenges that the labor movement in Bangladesh is facing from the state and the bosses, there are signs that a section of the movement is drawing some fairly combative conclusions and reaching out to other sections of the labor movement in the hopes of pushing things forward.
On Saturday, for instance, 4000 garment workers blockaded the Dhaka-Sylhet highway and had a standoff with the police that lasted four hours. Their demands included an implementation of the government-mandated wage increase in August (rather than November which is when the minimum wage increase is supposed to take place) and a eight-hour work day (work days are currently between 11 and 15 hours long) and an end to intimidation by factory owners. In a principled defense of their unions, the protesters also demanded the immediate release of Mantu Ghosh, one of the leaders of the Garments Trade Union Center and the Communist Party of Bangladesh. Early reports seem to indicate that the protesters left peacefully after negotiating with the police and winning some of their demands. But there are also reports that several people were injured in the fierce fight between the protesters and the police. There are also reports that most of the factories in Katherpul were shut down today.
The police repeated the claim that striking workers are lazy and vandals and have used that as a pretext to arrest several of the protesters. Meanwhile, there are reports of workers being injured on the job in the garment industry every day. The bosses will spend more money on covering their asses than they will on helping Badal’s family deal with his death or in compensating them for the unsafe working conditions that caused his death.
There are two outcomes possible now: either the left unions are able to win increasing numbers of garment workers to their side and continue the agitation or the police are able to repress the more militant actions while the conservative unions pressure their members to go back to work. Right now it seems that the pendulum might be swinging back in the direction of the left unions, though it has to be said that this weekend’s protest was much smaller than the ones that took place two weeks ago.
Most of the mainstream commentary still makes this an issue about what consumers are willing to pay rather than how much profit the bosses make. It seems fairly obvious that there is money to go around — and that the bosses are trying as hard as they can to keep as much of it for themselves.